You know, I don’t even really want to discuss any of the stuff that came up last week anymore. I’m sick of it. I’m sick of having my motives questioned, sick of being told I’m lying about them, sick of being told I’m a petty vindictive bitch, sick of being called a hypocrite, sick of being told I equate bad reviews with mean and thus obviously can’t handle reviews at all, sick of being yelled at for my “tone,” sick of being told I’m obviously egotistical and self-centered, sick of being referred to and treated like the Will Hays of the publishing world or something, or like I think I’m the freaking Black Gate of Mordor and you must get through me personally to be published so you better do exactly as I say, or that I told anyone they “wouldn’t get published” if they didn’t follow my advice, which is the biggest pile of bullshit. Since when is “another writer might not want to blurb you” equal to “forget about being published ever, bitches?” FFS. I was even told by one non-writer that I was making all women writers and the entire urban fantasy community look bad.
And in fact I was/am seriously considering either giving up the blog altogether or going back to what I’ve been doing the last few months, which is basically just making the blog about me personally and not really expressing any opinions at all. Because quite frankly, it’s not worth it to me (which funnily enough was the point of last week’s posts, too). Watching myself get slammed all up and down Twitter and all over the internet and finding nasty emails in my Inbox is not worth it. Being thrown into the center of some kind of huge swirling controversy simply for sharing my experience as truthfully as possible and giving a bit of advice which people are free to take or leave–advice I wish someone had given me, advice that was just meant to be helpful and friendly, something to think about, since the subject came up (publicly, not privately as some people seem to think)–isn’t worth it. I have too much going on in my life, frankly, and don’t need to be screamed at and torn apart by a bunch of people I don’t know, who don’t know me, who’ve never even heard of me before or read any of my work but who nonetheless feel qualified to call me rude/egotistical/self-centered/weak/scared/vindictive/fake/hypocritical/oversensitive/advocating dishonesty, and feel perfectly justified in doing so as loudly and as often as possible, even though my post was nothing personal, and aimed at no one in particular.
(Yes, I got some nasty emails about UNHOLY GHOSTS right before its release, too. That was quite upsetting. That was also worth it, because it was about my work; my art, and that matters deeply to me. This isn’t, and doesn’t.)
Of course, what’s happened is the perfect example of why I said “Be careful what you say because people will misinterpret it/take offense when none is intended/attribute motives to you which aren’t yours/claim you’re ‘protesting too much’ when you try to explain that no, that really wasn’t your motive.” That reaction is exactly what I meant, everyone. Go ahead and tell me again why I’m wrong to suggest caution in your online dealings unless you enjoy being attacked. I don’t mean that to be rude, I’m just pointing it out.
Anyway. I was going to give it up. And I’m still considering what I might do. But meanwhile I had this post planned, and have told people to expect it, and a few people have encouraged me to go ahead and post it, so here it is. I guess I really can’t be attacked more than I have been, or made to feel worse, or made to wonder any more what the hell I did that was so wrong that I deserved that kind of fury.
One of the most interesting comments I saw last week and throughout the weekend were the number of unpublished writers, or un-NY-published writers, talking about “helpful” reviews, and how great it can be to find reviews that give “constructive criticism.” (Those are actual quotes, btw, not me being sarcastic.) How they would never feel bad about any review because it’s all feedback and that’s so valuable and they learn from it.
And it got me thinking. What do I learn from reviews? What have I learned from my reviews?
Well…not a damn thing, to be honest.
Before you get all up in arms again, let me make a couple more things clear. I love readers. I love reviewers. I will and have stood up (many times) for the right of readers and reviewers to say whatever they like, in whatever way they like, and have said over and over that reviewers are great and I’m grateful for them, and that I wish the tension that often appears to exist between writers and readers wasn’t there. I do often read my reviews and I almost always enjoy reading them, even if the reviewer didn’t like the book.
But enjoying them and respecting them isn’t learning from them. I don’t. And here’s why.
As so many reviewers/book bloggers remind us regularly–often when some unfortunate and silly writer is having a hissy-fit meltdown over a review and thus behaving like an amateurish fool–a review is only one person’s opinion. And they’re exactly right; that’s all it is. The fact that it is only one person’s opinion means that many times there are contradictory opinions. For every reader who dislikes Chess, for example, there are many who love her. For every reader who finds her drug use distasteful, there are many who like it and feel it suits her character. For every reader who dislikes Downspeech, there are many who love it. For every reader who simply doesn’t like my voice, there are many who do. I’ve gotten reviews that loved parts of my books which I thought were the weakest. I’ve gotten reviews which weren’t crazy about the parts of which I was most proud.
Then there are the reviews which are frankly kind of screwball-y. Again, people have every right to post them. Their opinion is their opinion, and more power to them. But when the reviewer is furious because the word “god” isn’t capitalized in my totally atheistic world, or when the reviewer thinks I’m being prejudiced because rich people don’t use Downspeech so clearly I’m belittling the poor, I’m sorry, but I’m not going to learn anything from that, or even think about it.
Think about some of the reviews you’ve seen, whether for your work or someone else’s; haven’t you seen some occasionally where you just kind of wonder what book the reviewer read, or can’t understand why they would feel the way they do, don’t understand why they even read the book if they have such a visceral hatred for a major plot element/character trait/whatever, or the review is based on some sort of specific prejudice? Like, let’s say, a reviewer who hated TWILIGHT (I’m picking that because everyone knows what it is, not because I love it or hate it) because Bella’s father is a cop and all cops are scum. Or who hates Shakespeare’s plays because everyone talks funny. Or who hated THE DA VINCI CODE (again, an example with which people will be familiar; I’ve never read it) because they don’t like men named Robert (which is the MC’s name, right?), or who didn’t understand at all why Scout even cared about Tom Robinson’s trial in TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD or why it was such a big damn deal. Or any other sort of comment; a long time ago (I think it’s in one of the posts I linked up there) I mentioned a review Anna J. Evans and I got for our X-rated erotic romance DEMON’S TRIAD, and how the reviewer gave the book a very low score because there were f/f scenes and the plot had some extreme elements, when the fact that the book contained f/f scenes and that it “contained extreme story elements and was not for the faint of heart” was right there in the blurb, complete with a warning.
Yes, some reviews really are that arbitrary. I’m not making it up. And again, though I’m honestly getting sick of typing this over and over again, they have every right to be arbitrary and to shout their opinion from the rooftops. I’m not complaining, I’m just offering some examples.
That doesn’t mean I have to hear it and change my work because of it. Everyone is free to have an opinion; that doesn’t mean others have to agree (which is one reason why the reaction I got–the absolute rage in some of those comments/posts/emails–was such a shock to me. Why does my opinion and experience effect you so much? Just disagree and move on. It’s not like I’m advocating apartheid or suggesting we kill all the puppies or something; there’s really no need to get angry, is there?).
Aspiring writers involved in the query process often express frustration that agents/editors won’t give feedback when they reject them. Many of those agents and editors don’t do so because they don’t have time, or fear reprisals in the form of nasty emails. But they also don’t do it because it’s just their opinion, and they know very well that another agent/editor may feel differently. UNHOLY GHOSTS was given a revise-and-resubmit on the full by an agent I like and admire very much; that of course had some detailed feedback. I set his email aside because I was still querying (I knew that agent personally, and so had queried him before I “officially” started querying) and guess what? My own agent signed me two days after I queried him, and he liked the things the other agent hadn’t liked so much, and the book sold, and I’ve been lucky enough to get almost universally positive, enthusiastic reviews; the kinds of reviews writers dream about, frankly. Had I listened to that one agent and changed my book, it’s still possible he would have rejected it. My own agent probably wouldn’t be my agent, and the book might not have sold, or people might not have loved it so much. (That’s not to say the agent’s advice was bad, not at all, just that tastes and opinions differ.) It might have all still happened, sure, but there are no guarantees.
You cannot please everyone. If you try, you’ll go crazy. If you try to change your work based on every review you get, you’ll end up not pleasing anyone, especially not yourself.
Then there’s the simple fact that a review is written about an already-finished book. What am I supposed to do, ask my publishers to recall the book so I can fix something? That book is done, and the new book either doesn’t have anything to do with it, or does–if it’s a series–and to take that review into account would mean doing something unplanned or out-of-character or whatever. There have been some reviewers who dislike Chess’s addiction, for example. Were I to decide I needed to “learn from” those reviews and not write the addiction anymore, Chess would suddenly be clean in book 4 with no explanation or with very little explanation, which would be frankly silly.
Which brings me to one of the biggest points. Chess is an addict because she is, period. Her addiction is part of her character, and her character is one I needed to write. It’s not a gimmick or a ploy to get attention. If I take it away from her to please people, I’m not writing her the way I want and need to write her, the way I see her, the way she is. I’m not being honest, and I’m not being truthful. I’m pandering. I’m selling out. I’m giving up any claims to artistic integrity.
Every book we write should be a book we want or need to write. (And I am going to do a post about “write what you know” soon, too.) Every book we write should have some depth, should be important to us, should be an expression of something within ourselves. I firmly believe that if you don’t care about the book or characters, if you’re just tossing words on a page for cash, readers will know it/sense it.
So if I’m changing what I feel strongly about in order to make Annie at Reviews Plus (I just made that up, FYI) happy, I’m stifling myself creatively. I’m doing myself a disservice. More importantly, I’m doing my story a disservice. I’m doing my characters a disservice. I’m not telling the story the way I need to tell it; I’m not telling MY story or my characters’ story, and I’m not letting them actually be themselves. I’m letting someone else dictate my story to me; I’m letting someone else have control over my work, my art.
Perhaps it’s different when you don’t really get reviews; I can see any and every bit of feedback being important in that case. Most mmps in my genre–urban fantasy–seem to end up with anywhere from 100-200 reviews; to date the Downside books collectively are probably close to a thousand. That’s a lot of reviews, obviously. I’m crazy teary glad for all of them, but I’m not learning from them; I haven’t even read all of them. I honestly don’t remember ever learning something from a review, but I do remember being epublished and not getting very many reviews at all. I remember being unpublished and eager for any feedback I could get, and wanting that feedback so I could go into my book and improve it (critique and reviews are two different things). But again, that’s on an unpublished book, and that’s when you solicit the feedback, and that’s when you know and trust the person giving it, and that’s when you’re learning.
I’m still learning, of course. Every writer is still learning. But I learn from myself, from my editor/agent/writer friends, or from reading other books. I notice a weak sentence and fix it. I feel I didn’t do as well as I could have on that plot point or whatever, and resolve to do better in future. I notice what a lovely turn of phrase Writer A has, and it inspires me to try something different in my own work.
I get plenty of feedback. My BFF Cori reads all of my books, as I’ve said before. Cori is someone I love and trust, and Cori understands me and instinctively knows what I’m trying to do, and she will tell me how close I am to it. My critique partner pretty much since I started writing is Stacey Jay; while we no longer really critique for each other, we do still beta-read when we have time/the chance. My friend Caitlin Kittredge beta-reads for me sometimes. So does my friend Mark Henry. There are a few other writers I’ve beta read for in the past, and who have beta read for me. There are a few readers I’ve sent this or that to, to get an opinion.
Then, of course, there’s my agent and my editor, and the several rounds of edits most books go through before publication. So that’s a lot of feedback. That’s a lot of advice/opinions. The ultimate decision is mine, yes, but I get plenty of other eyes in there. I adjust accordingly, based on whether or not I agree with those opinions. By the time the book is published, I’ve made it as good as I think I possibly can (remember, I was so unhappy with CITY OF GHOSTS that I asked my editor if I could rewrite it two or three months after we’d finished edits and she’d accepted it; she said okay, and I cut 20,000 words and added 30k in two weeks). It wouldn’t be released if I didn’t think it was.
And by the time a book is released, I’ve moved on. I wrote UNHOLY GHOSTS from October to December 2007. It was released in May 2010. That’s not unusual (I was unagented when I wrote it, so getting an agent–I love my agent–and doing his edits, and then six weeks on submission, and then the time it took for editing etc. there, and then the decision to set publication back six months so we could do the three-in-a-row release schedule). I remember the book, of course. I love the book, of course. But I’m no longer in the book, if you know what I mean. In my head, Chess is now where she is at the end of Book 4/beginning of Book 5, not where she was in the beginning of UNHOLY GHOSTS. By the time a book is released, I’ve probably written a few others and consider myself further along, so I’m being reviewed on something I did several years ago which I may feel doesn’t reflect my best work already anyway, and I may feel I’m better now (always learning/growing), so taking advice from/learning from that review would be essentially pointless.
Don’t get me wrong; I’m grateful for each and every review I get, and always have been. Each and every one of them thrills me, cheers me, amuses me, whatever. I love reviews and I love reviewers. But I don’t learn from them, and I don’t read them for or expect them to give me constructive criticism.
And here’s the last reason for that: reviews are for readers, not writers. Reviews are not written with an eye toward helping me improve as a writer. Nor are they intended to do so, nor should they be. If someone has a specific complaint or suggestion for me about my books that they feel I need to see, they email it to me. They post reviews on their blogs to share their opinions with other readers, and that’s it.
I’m aware of several readers/reader blogs who frown on authors showing up there at all. Many reviewers dislike having authors comment on their own reviews, no matter how friendly, fair, and/or grateful the author is. Not because the reviewer is some kind of jerk, but because they wrote to share their opinion with other readers, not as some sort of tipsheet for the writer, and they feel their conversation with other readers is just that: a conversation with readers, and the writer’s presence is stifling that conversation. As I’ve said numerous times, there’s a reason why I don’t visit the Goodreads and Shelfari groups readers set up for the Downside books, and that reason is because I want those readers to feel free to speak openly without worrying what I might think, or that they’ll upset me, or even just that I’m there looking over their shoulders. I know they’re there–I was told about them–and I linked to them on the site in case other readers want to join in, but they’re not for me so I stay away.
When someone buys my book and reads it and reviews it, they’re reviewing it to let other readers know what they thought. That’s it. Many writers don’t even read their reviews; I don’t read bad ones, really (and luckily I’ve gotten very, very few of those).
To imply that reviews are/should be “constructive” is to imply that reviews are written for writers, thus treating readers as sort of unimportant, or as if they exist solely to please the writer, or as though they have a responsibility to do so/provide the writer with some sort of ego boost or suggestions to improve. They are not. Readers are readers; they don’t owe me shit. Reviews can be anything the reviewer wants them to be, from a six-page essay to a simple “This book sucks/rocks.” Readers/reviewers have no obligation to me, or to be “constructive,” to take my feelings into account, to help me become a better writer. Reviews are by readers, for readers. The world is not set up for me or to further my career, and that applies to all of us.
Sure, there may well be some reviewers out there who review because they want to help the writer(s). I’m just not aware of any. And I believe my work needs to be mine, and that while I certainly want very much to please my readers–that’s my goal in everything I write, it’s something I think about constantly, how much I want to please them, entertain them, and make them feel like they’re getting something really, really worth their time and money–I can’t let that stop me from telling the story I need to tell, or change my story because I know they won’t like something, or change my voice because they dislike my use of profanity, or write more sex because they want it or less sex because they don’t like sex scenes, or whatever else. And I can’t tell readers and reviewers that they have any kind of obligation to give me feedback, or be “constructive,” or anything else.
Because they don’t. Their job is to share their opinion, not to teach me. And my job is to write the best book I can.